Page 35

  He shifted a little because his ass was going to sleep, and moaned. Pain in his legs - particularly in the bunched remains of his left knee - and pain in his pelvis as well. That! probably meant he was in for a really bad night, because his" pelvis had gotten pretty quiet over the last two months.

  He felt for the hypo, picked it up, then put it back. A very light dose, she had said. Best to save it for later, then. He heard a light shuffle-scuffle and looked quickly in the corner, expecting to see the trooper crawling toward him, one brown eye peering from the hash of his face. If not for you I could be home watching TV now with my hand on my wife's leg.

  No cop. A dim shape which was maybe just imagination but was more likely a rat. Paul willed himself to relax.

  Oh what a long night this was going to be.


  He dozed a little and woke up slumped far over to the left with his head hung down like a drunk in an alley. He straightened up and his legs cursed him roundly. He used the bedpan and it hurt to piss and he realized with some dismay that a urinary infection was probably setting in. He was so vulnerable now. So fucking vulnerable to everything. He put the urinal aside and picked up the hypo again.

  A light dose of scopolamine, she said - well, maybe so. Or maybe she loaded it with a hot shot of something. The sort of stuff she used on folks like Ernie Gonyar and "Queenie" Beaulifant.

  Then he smiled a little. Would that really be so bad? The answer was a resounding HELL, NO! It would be good. The pilings would disappear forever. No more low tide. Forever.

  With that thought in mind he found the pulse in his left thigh, and though he had never injected himself in his life, he did it efficiently now, even eagerly.


  He did not die and he did not sleep. The pain went away and he drifted, feeling almost untethered from his body, a balloon of thought drifting at the end of a long string.

  You were also Scheherazade to yourself, he thought, and looked at the barbecue pot. He thought of Martian deathrays, burning London in fire.

  He thought suddenly of a song, a disco tune, something by a group called the Trammps: Burn, baby, burn, burn the mother down. . .

  Something flickered.

  Some idea.

  Burn the mother down. . .

  Paul Sheldon slept.


  When he woke up the cellar was filled with the ashy light of dawn. A very large rat sat on the tray Annie had left him, nibbling cheese with its tail neatly curled around its body.

  Paul screamed, jerked, then screamed again as pain flowed up his legs. The rat fled.

  She had left him some capsules. He knew that the Novril wouldn't take care of the pain, but it was better than nothing.

  Besides, pain or no pain, it's time for the old morning fix, right, Paul?

  He washed two of the caps down with Pepsi and then leaned back, feeling the dull throb in his kidneys. He was growing something down there, all right. Great.

  Martians, he thought. Martian death-machines He looked toward the barbecue pot, expecting it to look like a barbecue pot in the morning light: a barbecue pot and nothing else. He was surprised to find it still looked to him like one of Wells's striding machines of destruction.

  You had an idea - what was it?

  The song came back, the one by the Trammps: Burn, baby, burn, burn the mother down!

  Yeah? And just what mother is that? She wouldn't even leave you a candle. You couldn't light a fart.

  Up came a message from the boys in the sweatshop.

  You don't need to burn anything now. Or here.

  What the fuck are we talking about, guys? Could you let me in on - Then it came, it came at once, the way all the really ideas came, rounded and smooth and utterly persuasive in its baleful perfection.

  Burn the mother down. . .

  He looked at the barbecue pot, expecting the pain of what he had done - what she had made him do - to return. It did, but it was dull and faint; the pain in his kidneys was worse. What had she said yesterday? All I ever did was. . . talk you out of a bad book you'd written and into the best one you ever wrote. . .

  Maybe there was a queer sort of truth in that. Maybe he had wildly overestimated just how good Fast Cars had been.

  That's just your mind trying to heal itself, part of him whispered. If you ever get out of this, you'll work yourself around in much the same fashion to thinking you never needed your left foot anyway - hell, five less nails to clip. And they do wonders with prosthetics these days. No, Paul, one was a damned good book and the other was a damned good foot. Let's not kid ourselves.

  Yet a deeper part of him suspected that to think that way was kidding himself.

  Not kidding yourself, Paul. Tell the goddam truth. Lying to yourself. A guy who makes up stories, a guy like that is lying to everyone, so that guy can't ever lie to himself. It's funny, but it's also the truth. Once you start that shit, you might as well just cover up your typewriter and start studying for a broker's license or something, because you're down the toilet.

  So what was the truth? The truth, should you insist, was that the increasing dismissal of his work in the critical press as that of a "popular writer" (which was, as he understood it, one step - a small one - above that of a "hack") had hurt him quite badly. It didn't jibe with his self-image as a Serious Writer who was only churning out these shitty romances in order to subsidize his (flourish of trumpets, please!) REAL WORK! Had he hated Misery? Had he really? If so, why had it been so easy to slip back into her world? No, more than easy; blissful, like slipping into a warm bath with a good book by one hand and a cold beer by the other. Perhaps all he had hated was the fact that her face on the dust jackets had overshadowed his in his author photographs, not allowing the critics to see that they were dealing with a young Mailer or Cheever here - that they were dealing with a heavyweight here. As a result, hadn't his "serious fiction" become steadily more self-conscious, a sort of scream? Look at me! Look how good this is! Hey, guys! This stuff has got a sliding perspective! This stuff has got stream-of-consciousness interludes! This is my REAL WORK, you assholes! Don't you DARE turn away from me! Don't you DARE, you cockadoodie brats! Don't you DARE turn away from my REAL WORK! Don't you DARE, or I'll - What? What would he do? Cut off their feet? Saw off their thumbs?

  Paul was seized by a sudden fit of shivering. He had to urinate. He grabbed the bedpan and finally managed, although it hurt worse than before. He moaned while he was pissing, and continued moaning for a long while after it was done.

  Finally, mercifully, the Novril began to kick in - a little and he drowsed.

  He looked at the barbecue pot with heavy-lidded eyes.

  How would you feel if she made you burn Misery's Return? the interior voice whispered, and he jumped a little. Drifting away, he realized that it would hurt, yes, it would hurt terribly, it would make the pain he had felt when Fast Cars went up in smoke look like the pain of this kidney infection compared with what he had felt when she brought the axe down, cutting off his foot, exercising editorial authority over his body.

  He also realized that wasn't the real question.

  The real question was how it would make Annie feel.

  There was a table near the barbecue pot. There were maybe half a dozen jars and cans on it.

  One was a can of charcoal lighter fluid.

  What if Annie was the one screaming in pain? Are you curious about how that might sound? Are you curious at all? The proverb says revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but Ronson Fast-Lite had yet to be invented when they made that one up.

  Paul thought: Burn the mother down, and fell asleep. There was a little smile on his pale and fading face.


  When Annie arrived back at quarter of three that afternoon, her normally frizzy hair flattened around her head in the shape of the helmet she had been wearing, she was in a silent mood that seemed to indicate tiredness and reflection r
ather than depression. When Paul asked her if everything had gone all right, she nodded.

  "Yes, I think so. I had some trouble starting the bike, or I would have been back an hour ago. The plugs were dirty. How are your legs, Paul? Do you want another shot before I take you upstairs?" After almost twenty hours in the dampness, his legs felt as if someone had studded them with rusty nails. He wanted a shot very badly, but not down here. That would not do at all.

  "I think I'm all right. " She turned her back to him and squatted. "All right, grab on. But remember what I said about choke-holds and things like that. I'm very tired, and I don't think I'd react very well to funny jokes. "

  "I seem to be all out of jokes. "

  "Good. " She lifted him with a moist grunt, and Paul had to bite back a scream of agony. She walked across the floor toward the stairs, her head turned slightly, and he realized she was - or might be - looking at the can-littered table. Her glance was short, seemingly casual, but to Paul it seemed to go on for a very long time, and he was sure she would realize the can of lighter fluid was no longer there. It was stuffed down the back of his underpants instead. Long months after his earlier depredations, he had finally summoned up the courage to steal something else. . . and if her hands slipped up his legs as she climbed the stairs, she was going to grab, more than a handful of his skinny ass.

  Then she glanced away from the table with no change of expression, and his relief was so great that the thudding, shifting ascent up the stairs to the pantry was almost bearable. She kept up a very good poker face when she wanted to, but he thought - hoped - that he had fooled her.

  That this time he had really fooled her.

  Chapter 4


  "I guess I'd like that shot after all, Annie," he said when she had him back in bed.

  She studied his white, sweat-beaded face for a moment, then nodded and left the room.

  As soon as she was gone, he slid the flat can out of his underwear and under the mattress. He had not put anything under there since the knife, and he did not intend to leave the lighter fluid there long, but it would have to stay there for the rest of the day. Tonight he intended to put it in another, safer place.

  She came back and gave him an injection. Then she put a steno pad and some freshly sharpened pencils on the windowsill and rolled his wheelchair over so it was by the bed.

  "There," she said. "I'm going to get some sleep. If a car comes in, I'll hear it. If we're left alone, I'll probably sleep right through until tomorrow morning. If you want to get up and work in longhand, here's your chair. Your manuscript is over there, on the floor. I frankly don't advise it until your legs start to warm up a little, though. "

  "I couldn't right now, but I guess I'll probably soldier along awhile tonight. I understand what you meant about time being short now. "

  "I'm glad you do, Paul. How long do you think you need?"

  "Under ordinary circumstances, I'd say a month. The way I've been working just lately, two weeks. If I really go into overdrive, five days. Or maybe a week. It'll be ragged, but it'll be there. " She sighed and looked down at her hands with dull concentration. "I know it's going to be less than two weeks. "

  "I wish you'd promise me something. " She looked at him with no anger or suspicion, only faint curiosity. "What?"

  "Not to read any more until I'm done. . . or until I have to. . . you know. . . "


  "Yes. Or until I have to stop. That way you'll jet the conclusion without a lot of fragmentation. It'll have a lot more punch. "

  "It's going to be a good one, isn't it?"

  "Yes. " Paul smiled. "It's going to be very hot stuff. "


  That night, around eight o'clock, he hoisted himself carefully into the wheelchair. He listened and heard nothing at all from upstairs. He had been hearing the same nothing ever since the squeak of the bedsprings announced her lying down at four o'clock in the afternoon. She really must have been tired.

  Paul got the lighter fluid and rolled across to the spot by the window where his informal little writer's camp was pitched: here was the typewriter with the three missing teeth in its unpleasant grin, here the wastebasket, here the pencils and pads and typing paper and piles of scrap-rewrite, some of which he would use and some of which would go into the wastebasket.

  Or would have, before.

  Here, all unseen, was the door to another world. Here too, he thought, was his own ghost in a series of overlays, like still pictures which, when riffled rapidly, give the illusion of movement.

  He wove the chair between the piles of paper and the casually stacked pads with the ease of long practice, listened once more, then reached down and pulled out a nine-inch section of the baseboard. He had discovered it was loose about a month ago, and he could see by the thin film of dust on it (Next you'll be taping hairs across it yourself just to make sure, he had thought) that Annie hadn't known this loose piece of board was here. Behind it was a narrow space empty save for dust and a plentiful scattering of mouse-turds.

  He stowed the can of Fast-Lite in the space and pushed the board back into place. He had an anxious moment when he was afraid it would no longer fit flush against its mates (and God! her eyes were so fucking sharp!), and then it slipped neatly home.

  Paul regarded this a moment, then opened his pad, picked up a pencil, and found the hole in the paper.

  He wrote undisturbed for the next four hours - until the points on all three of the pencils she had sharpened for him were written flat - and then he rolled himself back to the bed, got in, and went easily off to sleep.




  Geoffrey's arms were beginning to feel like white iron. He had been standing in the deep shadows outside the hut which belonged to M'Chibi "Beautiful One" for the last five minutes, looking rather like a too-slim version of the circus strong-man with the Baronesses" trunk poised over his head.

  Just as he came to believe that nothing Hezekiah could say would convince M'Chibi to leave his hut, he heard sounds of movement. Geoffrey turned even further, the muscles in his arms now twitching wildly. Chief M'Chibi "Beautiful One" was the Keeper of the Fire, and inside his hut were better than a hundred torches, the head of each coated with a thick, gummy resin. This resin oozed from the low trees of the area, and the Bourka called it Fire-Oil or Fire-Blood-Oil. Like most essentially simple languages, that of the Bourkas could at times be oddly elusive. Whatever you called the stuff, however, there were enough torches in there to get the whole village afire - it would burn like a Guy Fawkes dummy, Geoffrey thought. . . if, that was, M'Chibi could be gotten out of the way.

  Fear not to strike, Boss Ge'ff'y Hezekiah had said. M'Chibi, he come out firs" one, "cause he the fire-man. Hezekiah, he be comin" out secon" one. So you don't be waitin" to see my gold toot" flash! You break that brat's head, damn quick!